How right is right?

Amused by his detractors: Goldwater at the Balboa Bay Club, where his family has summered for more than five decades.

When you hear Barry Goldwater's views on the religious right, abortion, homosexuals and school prayer, the retired senator sounds less like the godfather of American conservatism than one of those liberal Kennedy Democrats he used to terrify. Is he old and out of touch, or are our traditional political labels?


Photography by ANN KOEHLER

An especially long line of people waited for a seat for the 6 p.m. taping of Jay Leno's Tonight Show at NBC's Burbank studios.

Leno's headliners for the evening included television's top comedienne, Roseanne Barr, and the godfather of American conservatism, former Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. In show business, they call combinations like that a "AAA'' booking--loaded with promise.

Goldwater, now 86, was apprehensive. As he put it, "You do well on a talk show if the mix of guests is just right.'' Goldwater had seen Barr on television. What did the two possibly have in common besides a reputation for speaking their very different minds?

Conversation on the set was tame. Producers were waving cue cards at Leno, offering direction to enliven the show. Goldwater took their cue. He turned to Barr and asked her about a rose tattoo that he'd heard she put on her breast. She pulled down her blouse to reveal the tattoo at the top of her formidable bosom. * "You know, I've always wanted a tattoo,'' said the man who struck terror into the hearts of a generation of Kennedy Democrats during his 1964 White House bid. * "Really?'' Barr said.

"Yeah," Goldwater replied. "I want a pair of big red lips tattooed on my ass.''

Barr, Leno and the studio audience dissolved into hysterics. Everyone later agreed the show was a roaring success. But if Goldwater's televised candor was startling, it paled next to the candor he displays on other topics these days. The icon of the American right recently talked about hot-button issues--abortion, gay rights, school prayer, the religious right--and at times he sounded like one of those Kennedy Democrats.

"I haven't changed," Goldwater says, staring out the window at the Lido Isle view his family enjoyed during summers on Balboa Peninsula. "The world has."

Once upon a time in America, say 1964, the world was neatly divided into two halves, the left and the right. Those on the left were anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-industry. Those on the right were anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-anything that interfered with a robust capitalistic marketplace. Each side had its heroes, each side had its boogeymen.

To many, Barry Goldwater once defined the fringe of right-wing thought. He burst into the national consciousness like an avenging angel in horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and his bulldog visage remains a symbol as potent as any other from the 1960s. At that time, Goldwater was calling for freedom from government control, a free-wheeling marketplace and support for American troops fighting in Vietnam.

Says Tom Fuentes, chairman of the Orange County Republican Committee: "Barry Goldwater was the lightning rod of the conservative movement in his time. He popularized the G.O.P. His followers rejected the big business, big government ties of traditional Republican politics, opening the gate to the rank and file."

Fuentes credits Goldwater with paving the way for Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution in 1980: "It wasn't until Reagan was elected that the Goldwater message had real viability in American politics. Barry was like John the Baptist, wandering in the desert until Ronald Reagan arrived to lead the nation.''

Yet many still cling to the image of Goldwater as a latter-day Joe McCarthy and despise what they believe was his rhetoric of control. He represented the voices of a pre-Nixon "moral majority" horrified by the sight of student demonstrations against war in Southeast Asia, race riots in Los Angeles, and an invasion of long-hairs bent on destroying a prosperous society.

But in a year when presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan is wowing crowds with views even conservative Republicans considered too extreme in 1992, and adaptable incumbent Bill Clinton occasionally tacks hard to starboard, Goldwater's recent comments shed light on how the old implements for surveying the political landscape aren't easily applied to current reality. They raise the question "How right is right?" and infuriate some long-time supporters, some of whom now consider Goldwater a traitor to the cause or worse, a harmless old man who shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Says Henry Jaffa, who helped Goldwater write his 1964 platform speech for the Republican convention and now is a professor emeritus at The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy: "I can't believe the things I hear coming out of his mouth."

For instance? Politics has no business in the bedroom,'' Goldwater says, adding that sexual preference should have no bearing on any American's right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as that pursuit does not infringe on the liberty of others. "And that goes for pursuit of a career in the military, the corporate world, or even the White House.''

He glances over at his daughter, Peggy Goldwater Clay, who is sitting nearby. Clay, a longtime Newport Beach resident, businesswoman and community activist, has come to spend time with her dad, whom she adores. "You tell 'em pop," she replies. "Are gays a new phenomenon in the Nineties?" Goldwater says. "Do you think none existed in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties? There have been gay people in the military since the Pilgrims landed. There were probably some gay Indians on the shore waiting to greet them.''

Although issues such as abortion were not debated publicly during Goldwater's high-profile years, his thoughts on the issue seem equally surprising. But, says Goldwater, "I say the very same things I said 30 years ago. It is a woman's right to choose, not a man's. I said so then, I say so now--only then we were not as open. Abortion really has no place in politics. Government shouldn't fund it, condone it or forbid it.''

Goldwater's thoughts on those issues may surprise conservatives who are unwilling to part with whatever memory they hold of the 1964 Goldwater. Political messages can be momentary and disposable, yet the public does not reward politicians who admit to being changing, multidimensional human beings.

Jaffa, a lifelong conservative and Goldwater friend, says Goldwater's opinions are "not in keeping with the Republican or conservative view in America today. Some might call Goldwater's views individualist or perhaps Libertarian, but not conservative. Furthermore, I do not believe he held these views when he ran for the presidency. If he did, he certainly would not have spoken them then.''

Republican California Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer agrees with Goldwater. Recently elected to the 70th District seat, representing a large portion of south Orange County, Brewer won a volatile race that pitted her moderate conservatism against that of candidates further to the right. Goldwater lent his endorsement--one of the few times he has done so since leaving the public spotlight in 1986. "Senator Goldwater has served as a visionary who has shaped and directed the conservative ideology of this country for over three decades," Brewer says. "Over 30 years ago, he was calling for less intrusive government, individual rights, and personal freedoms. His ideas were progressive for the times and remain a guiding light to many in elective office today."

Fuentes is not as kind. "Barry Goldwater is one of the great old men of the party. He is loved like you love your grandfather. He's cranky and he's crusty, but he is still loved. He went over the line in recent years with some of his endorsements. That sort of wandering comes with age. But then, we all get old one day. He does not have a national voice for policy today. Most who worked for him in the campaign of '64 like to remember him as he was. Most forgive the indescretions of his recent years. You would forgive your grandfather, wouldn't you?''

Goldwater considers such comments patronizing. "Well, he got the crusty part right,'' he growls.

Goldwater watches boat traffic pass along Newport Channel. "Looking out this window, I remember like it was yesterday the first time my late wife Peggy and I came to Newport Beach in the Forties. There were no more than 15 or 20 homes on the island. Marine barracks lined the coast off the highway just north of here. The Bay Club was just starting. We fell in love with the place."

Goldwater's long and happy marriage ended with Peggy's death in 1985, and he is remarried. The word "regret" is not in his vocabulary, and he remains optimistic.

"The problems facing America will be overcome by looking for new answers, not retreating out of fear," he says. "We live in a wonderful world. In spite of the many problems, I hope my children and grandchildren can have the kind of life I have had in a country where the government will let them run their own show.''

As for himself, Goldwater says, "I plan on continuing to express my viewpoint as honestly as I possibly can until they carry me out of here. I never set out to win a popularity contest in life. It's easier to tell people what they want to hear, not so easy to tell them the truth." OC

B.W. Cook is a columnist for the Daily Pilot and is editor of The Bay Window.


THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT: "The religious right is dangerous. It's trouble for the party and trouble for America. I am truly worried. When people start controlling politicians by threatening to boycott them if they are not of the same religious bent, we begin to see the ugly face of fascism."

GAY RIGHTS: "With the exception of a few states, there could be a gay president today. Religion, color, sex and sexual orientation are transcended by honor, reputation and background.''

SCHOOL PRAYER: "There's no reason we can't have prayer in public schools. There is no law against it. However, there can be no law enforcing it, either. Prayer is OK, but not when dictated by the government."

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